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This recent poll shows how Americans think about the war in Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Papers showed how the U.S. government misled the public. Will that change minds?

- January 3, 2020

The Washington Post’s recently published Afghanistan Papers project revealed a purposeful effort, by both Democratic and Republican administrations, to mislead the American public on the harsh realities of the war in Afghanistan. This fall, we asked a nationally representative sample of Americans, as part of the University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll, what exactly they thought of the state of America’s longest war.

The survey was carried out Oct. 4-10, 2019, online among a nationally representative sample of 1,260 respondents from Nielsen Scarborough’s probability-based panel, originally recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of adults provided by Survey Sampling International. The margin of error is +/- 2.76 percentage points. The survey variables balanced through weighting were: age, gender, race/ethnicity, household income, level of education, census regional division and political party affiliation.

Here is what we found: Despite Americans’ hesitancy to deploy U.S. troops into other conflicts, they remain comparably supportive, after 18 years of war, of maintaining the U.S. military footprint in Afghanistan.

Little polarization on Afghanistan

At a time of deep partisan polarization on nearly every issue, there is little on Afghanistan. Take, for example, Americans’ preference on U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan. Among Democrats, 38 percent favored maintaining current troop levels in Afghanistan, compared with 34 percent of Republicans. Twenty-three percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Democrats favored decreasing troop levels.

Compare this to the question we asked on the U.S. withdrawal from northern Syria. Attitudes were set along party lines, and the partisan gulf was far wider — 66 percent of Democrats opposed the move, while only 23 percent of Republicans did (a 43 percentage point difference).

Even when partisan disparities occur on policy preferences related to the war in Afghanistan, they generally do not appear severe enough to constitute polarization. Republicans (63 percent) were 23 percentage points more likely than Democrats (40 percent) to disagree with the idea that the United States has a responsibility to ensure that Afghanistan has a liberal democratic government. Despite the difference, however, taking no responsibility for Afghanistan’s democracy was the most popular response for both Republicans and Democrats, with only 22 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats agreeing that the United States should ensure that Afghanistan has a liberal democracy.

This lack of deep polarization on Afghan issues may be a function not only of relative consistency across Republican and Democratic administrations, but also of the almost universal congressional support for the war when it was initiated after the 9/11 attacks.

Public supportive of staying the course

The American public is relatively conservative on troop presence in Afghanistan. A plurality of respondents favored maintaining current troop levels (34 percent). Regardless of the wisdom of the initial intervention, a plurality of respondents (44 percent) also felt that the United States has an obligation toward the Afghan government and segments of Afghan society affected by the war.

Among those respondents, nearly one-third (30 percent), including 28 percent of Democrats, felt that responsibility should take the form of a limited military role. Compare this to the opposition that respondents showed to potential military options with Iran. Only 20 percent of respondents felt that the United States should be prepared to go to war with Iran, versus 76 percent who felt the goals of U.S. policy didn’t warrant waging war.

In September, an attack blamed on Iran involving drones and missiles hit Saudi Arabian oil fields. Respondents were asked whether the U.S. should consider military action if sufficient evidence of Iranian involvement were produced, and only 32 percent of Americans said “yes,” while 66 percent said military action would not be warranted.

Trump not having a huge impact on public opinion on Afghanistan

President Trump’s policy toward Afghanistan included negotiating with the Taliban (off and on) to end the war. We found respondents were divided on negotiating with the Taliban, with 42 percent supporting and 41 percent opposing. Typically, we would expect Republicans’ opinion to fall in line with Trump’s stated aims. However, Republican respondents were still nine percentage points more likely to disagree (49 percent) than agree (40 percent) with negotiations. Likewise, we noted the lack of a shift among Democrats to oppose the president. Republican respondents were 14 percentage points more likely to disagree than Democrats (35 percent).

Last year, the president revealed that a peace summit had been scheduled with the Taliban at Camp David — for Sept. 8 — but ultimately canceled. When asked to respond to plans for the summit, 82 percent of respondents expressed criticism of the summit for either hosting the Taliban on U.S. soil, signing an agreement with the group in general, or hosting the summit so close to an anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. These critical respondents included 83 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans, a highly unusual show of disapproval about the summit.

In short, Americans displayed views that were uncharacteristically supportive of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan given trends in public opinion on other conflicts. These views were not affected by party- and Trump-based polarization in the same way as other issues of interest. While it is difficult to discern whether our poll results are directly related to the effect of the deliberate policies of Republican and Democratic administrations revealed by The Post, there is much in the findings to suggest a connection.

Shibley Telhami is Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development and director of the University of Maryland’s Critical Issues Poll. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Connor Kopchick is a PhD student in government and politics at the University of Maryland and a graduate assistant with the Critical Issues Poll.